Downtown needs a manager

Here’s my latest column from The Sun.

Idea 15: Form a place-management organization.

Welcome to beautiful downtown Gainesville.

On one of their regular strolls, Ken and Linda McGurn took a few snapshots of their neighborhood’s particular, um, charms.

Poorly patched sidewalks. Peeling streets. Uneven curbs that invite broken ankles. Grime encrusted bricks underfoot.

“Do you know the condition of your downtown?” Ken McGurn asked in a subsequent email to interim City Manager Cynthia Curry.

Photos taken by Ken and Linda McGurn.

The McGurns are no casual observers. They don’t just live downtown, they practically invented it.

Beginning in the 1980s they restored the old Sun building, the Opera House and other historic structures, put up downtown’s first parking garage, built the Union Street Station and more. Their ongoing support has helped the Hipp survive some bad times.

There’s no question we need more private investment in downtown. But when you consider the investments already made in Union Street Station, the Hampton, the Hyatt Place, the development that will rise on the SW 1st Avenue parking lot, the terrific restoration of the long decaying Masonic Lodge, one might argue that it’s not the private sector that’s been faltering.

No, the City’s failure to exercise downtown stewardship is the bigger culprit.

Which brings me to Idea 15.

MKSK, the consulting firm working on a new downtown master plan, has released a draft full of useful ideas for revitalization – 16 of them all told.

And I’m not sure why they saved what is arguably most important idea for next to last.

Idea 15: “Form a place-management organization.”

Cut through the consult-speak and that means we need people who wake up each morning and ask themselves “What will I do today to make downtown a better place to live, work and play?”

Downtown needs a management entity possessed of professional staff and backed by a strong alliance with business. And it requires resources (yes, money) to get that job done.

Nothing revolutionary about that. There are hundreds of downtown management districts scattered across the county. I’d be hard pressed to identify a successful American downtown that doesn’t have some form of professional management.

Boulder has one to keep people flocking to Pearl Street. So does our SEC rival city of Lexington, Ky.

Downtown DeLand.

DeLand, home of Stetson University, built the most successful downtown in Florida (in my opinion) on the Main Street America model adapted by many cities. And if you haven’t seen downtown Ocala lately (also a Main Street operation) you really ought to go take a look.

My daughter lives in Bethesda, Md., a “bedroom” community in the D.C. orbit. It’s got a thriving downtown chock full of apartments and condos, hotels, retail, corporate offices, entertainment venues and much more.

Nothing happens there that doesn’t have BUP’s (Bethesda Urban Partnership) fingerprints on it. And Bethesda isn’t even a city. BUP operates under contract with Montgomery County.

Downtown Bethesda.

Yes, I know, downtown has paid incremental taxes to the Community Redevelopment Agency for years. But the CRA is not a manager, just a disburser of Tax Increment Funding cash for infrastructure improvements.

A sidewalk is certainly an infrastructure improvement. But if someone isn’t fixing its cracks and regularly washing away the built-up grime, gum and cigarette butts, that sidewalk ends up looking like the ones the McGurns photographed.

Downtown Gainesville.

Listen, City Hall is in downtown, but it is not of downtown. We need a “place-management organization” that is all in on downtown.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at ron@freegnv.com.

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